Mayor Bill de Blasio vigorously defended Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte today after a report from the city’s Department of Investigation found that he and his staff were in the habit of taking trips to the Hamptons, coastal Maine, and the Mohegan Sun casino with city vehicles, a glaring violation of the rules.
“DOI’s investigation revealed 21 senior-level employees routinely abused take-home vehicle privileges and cost city taxpayers thousands of dollars in wasted money spent on gas and tolls to cover personal trips,” the report said. “As a result, DOI is referring the findings for these 21 individuals to the appropriate enforcement bodies.”
De Blasio excused his commissioner, who has been tasked with cleaning up conditions on Rikers Island, during his weekly appearance on WNYC, saying Ponte had been misled about the rules.
“Commissioner Ponte, to the best of my understanding, was told by his own internal staff this was the right way to handle things,” de Blasio told host Brian Lehrer. “He was advised, he followed that guidance, that guidance was wrong.”
DOI Commissioner Mark Peters pushed back on the mayor’s statement almost immediately in a release on the agency’s website.
“City Hall is misinformed,” the statement read. “Our investigation conclusively demonstrated that Commissioner Ponte and others did not receive official ‘advice’ that they could use their cars for personal trips out of state. Indeed, one of the senior staff was previously fined by [the Conflicts of Interest Board] for related conduct.”
The DOI report says Ponte used his city-funded vehicle for 28 separate trips, many to his native Maine, often staying for “days at a time.” In total, Ponte’s trips kept him out of the state for ninety calendar days in 2016, nearly a quarter of the year. Ponte spent at least $1,043.44 on his city credit card for gas on out-of-state trips, and in total, the department estimates that the improper costs to the city for all the DOC staff amounted to more than $20,000.
Acting on an anonymous tip, DOI investigated records for 98 vehicles, “mapping over 2.4 million GPS data points, analyzing dozens of vehicle usage maps, vehicle assignment records, gas card data, and E-ZPass statements.” Improper travel was found for 40 percent of the vehicles examined, including “multiple trips to shopping malls, area airports on nights and weekends, beaches, spas, resorts, and other destinations without corresponding timesheets.”
Aside from Ponte’s trips to Maine, the report lists a whole bunch of other enjoyable destinations to which taxpayers generously whisked Ponte or his staff. DOC staff took no fewer than 16 trips to the outlet stores in Riverhead and Woodbury Commons, and also managed to sneak away to the Poconos and the Catskills.
Meanwhile, violence on Rikers Island was increasing from already epidemic levels, staff were ignoring medical emergencies leading to at least one inmate’s death, and guards were busy smuggling heaps of contraband for sale in their own private captive market. Ponte was hired in 2014, after managing a corrections system in Maine with 2,000 inmates; Rikers held 12,000 prisoners at the time.
Staff members questioned by DOI said they considered themselves to be on “24-hour call,” and so they viewed their use of city vehicles as reasonable, in case they needed to respond in an emergency. “However,” DOI noted, “no staff member reported having ever actually responded to any departmental emergency from the locations cited by DOI in its report.”
And as DOI’s report notes, the guidelines for use of personal cars are not exactly hard to find. The City Vehicle Driver Handbook, which prohibits the kind of personal travel DOI uncovered, is available to the public online through the city’s homepage, and provided by DOC to each driver at the time that they receive their vehicle,” the report says.
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